The sight and sound of water in a garden can lift it to a new level. When I am in a garden and hear or see water, it can, almost instantly, create a calming, serene atmosphere. Whether it is a simple birdbath, a splashing fountain, a flowing stream, or a pool, water gives a garden something more.
Garden Water Features for Birds
Of course, fountains and birdbaths in gardens provide many wildlife benefits in addition to the pleasure that they give us. Especially this summer in the Pacific Northwest, and many other western areas as well, these water features may provide the only fresh sources of water for birds and other wildlife.
In my own garden, I have several birdbaths, and they are in constant use throughout the day. I am often amazed at not only the number of birds we get daily but the different kinds of birds. (Note: I am always diligent in emptying the birdbaths out every morning and refilling them with fresh water so as not to spread any disease. It also prevents a breeding area for any mosquito larvae.) If birds have become accustomed to a birdbath in your garden and are dependent on it for water, please be aware of the need to keep it filled, especially during hot, dry times. In many urban settings, sources for water may be very limited, so all gardeners in cities should have water for birds and other wildlife.
In addition to birdbaths, many gardeners add water features with running water. The water movement can be brisk or slow, depending on the wishes of the gardener. I recommend some water movement as a preventative to stop mosquitos from laying eggs because mosquitoes do not lay eggs in running water.
In my garden, I have a very large glazed pot that originally was meant to be a planter, but it has been converted to a fountain. It has become a focal point in the garden, and birds love it. Hummingbirds often land on the rim, and let the gentle flow of water run over their feet. It is also not unusual to see our black lab, Cody, use it as a source for drinking, so this fountain has become multi-use when the original purpose was as a piece of garden art.
Garden Streams and Waterfalls
We have neighbors that have built a short, shallow running stream in their garden. It is delightful to sit by, watch the water as it flows, and hear its sound. It creates a very peaceful and tranquil setting. Many water features are considered garden art and an integral part of the garden. This is one of them. Then, there are others that can function as art and for utility.
Waterfalls in gardens can create a different effect, often with sound and sight taking one mentally to a different place. Adding koi, or other colorful fish, can enhance the experience. Even small fountains now offer choices as to the desired flow. With many pumps, the flow of water can be regulated to a gentle flow or one that is more rushing.
When visiting other gardens, it is always a treat if they have birdbaths, fountains, or other water features. Gardeners can be innovative with their plants as well as their water features. It is a good idea to visit other gardens with water features for ideas and options for your own garden. Talk with the garden owners, because they can give advice and perhaps prevent any pitfalls that you may not have considered. Once you know what water feature you want, check with a professional to review other important factors other than just plugging in the pump.
Hot weather drains garden plants dry and reduces productivity, especially when rain is scarce. More and more gardeners have had to change the way they grow because heat and drought limit the season. Rather than getting discouraged, they have learned smarter gardening techniques and how to stretch resources. Approaching the garden season with several lines of defense for drought is essential, especially where summer water restrictions are usually imposed.
US Drought Severity is Growing
The problem is growing. In much of the West and some eastern states, summer brings seasonal drought at different levels of intensity. According to NASA’s Drought Monitor, a third of the United States was faced with drought last season (2020). They stated, “Anestimated 53 million people are living in drought-affected areas.” It is a sobering number that shows no sign of decline, and it suggests that water-wise gardening has become a necessity for lots of American gardeners.
Keep Water Grounded
The first tips for saving water involve keeping it in the soil, while avoiding any aerosol or evaporative water loss from sprinklers or over-exuberant hand watering.
1. Amend soil with water-holding additives. Some soil components naturally hold lots of water and act as water reservoirs that make it more available to plant roots for longer. Organic matter (peat, compost, leaf mold, and coconut coir) is on the front line of holding water in the soil. Aerated organic matter soaks water up like a sponge and easily redistributes it to plant roots, For example, processed coconut coir soaks up 90% of its weight in water. Inorganic soil additives, like water-holding crystals and vermiculite, also hold water but are better suited for container gardening.
2. Use drip irrigation: Drip irrigation, in the form of drip-tubing systems for containers or drip hoses and drip tape for beds, deliver water at soil level where it quickly soaks into the ground, and is not lost by evaporation. Drip systems are the best for delivering garden water. In contrast, sprinklers lose an excessive amount of water to evaporation, and water delivery is not targeted.
4. Choose larger pots or containers that are glazed or water-impermeable and light in color. Large planters that are light in color hold more water better. Glazed or other water-impermeable surfaces keep the water in, unlike common unglazed Terracotta, which is porous and quickly loses water from its sides. Lighter pots also reflect heat, which helps keep plant roots cooler and happier.
5. Track Watering and Water Deeply: Keep track of watering time and length to determine the general amount needed to keep your garden happy. Soil moisture meters for pots make it easy to know when it is time to water, which takes the guesswork out, though most planters need daily watering when it is really hot and dry. When it comes to garden beds, water deeply–for at least a couple of hours–to ensure that water penetrates down to the roots. Deep watering also encourages deeper rooting, which helps plants get through tough, dry weather.
Manage Light to Reduce Water Loss
5. Reduce excess sunlight with light hoop covers. When temperatures are scorching and the sun is hot, floating hoop covers draped with lightweight row-cover cloth can be placed over small beds or low-growing garden vegetables to give them a rest and help conserve water. They will still get the light that they need, but the heat will be reduced a bit. Covers secured at both ends can also be helpful in keeping pests away. Greens, carrots, beets, turnips, and comparable crops appreciate this sort of light protection the most. (Click here for more row cover basics.)
6. Use strategic shading and timing. Plant perennials or pots in locations where they get some shade during the hottest time of the day in summer (between 2 and 4 pm). This will help them hold onto water when the weather is most extreme. Watering in the early morning, before the sun rises, will also help plants make it through hot, dry days. If you live in an area where the drought is bad, feel free to irrigate plants in the evening without fear of encouraging diseases. When it is severely hot and dry, plants need lots of moisture at the root zone to fill up with water and keep cool.
Collecting Water for Reuse
When rain does fall, it is wise to set up ways to collect runoff water–such as rain barrels or cisterns. Before doing so, one must know their roof composition beforehand because two roof types release high concentrations of dangerous heavy metals. These are roofs made of 1) uncoated galvanized metal, which releases high concentrations of zinc, and 2) treated wood shakes that release high concentrations of copper. All other roof types should be fine, according to research. Be sure to keep the tops covered to avoid mosquito breeding and possible animal drownings. Here is a little more information about these water collecting reservoirs.
7. Collecting water in Rain Barrels or Cisterns: Rain barrels are quite inexpensive and easy to install for rainwater collection. They connect to gutter downspouts to capture roof rainwater. Not only does this reduce watering costs, but many plants prefer rainwater over tap water. I recommend placing barrels up on cinder blocks to improve water flow from the release valve at the base. It makes it easier to fill watering cans or hook up hosing for garden irrigation. Be sure to empty your rain barrel at the end of the season if you live in an area with cold winters.
Cisterns are water collectors that store more water, and they may be kept above- or below-ground. They may be designed to collect rainwater, air-conditioning condensate, or even reserves of well-water. Unlike rain barrels, they are more costly to install but recommended for areas where water is limited and restricted. If you live in a place with annual seasonal rainfall of 15-inches/year or more (click here to see US annual rainfall averages), then consider installing a rainwater cistern.
Grow Drought-Tolerant Plants
Some plants use water more efficiently or hold onto it better when the rain stops falling.
8. Grow Drought Tolerant Plants. Plants from the Mediterranean and arid West, as well as succulents, tend to shine in heat and drought. Those naturally adapted to more severe drought are often labeled as Xeric or Waterwise plants, and many specialty nurseries carry them. High Country Gardens is one great commercial online seller and Xera Plants is another. Most garden retailers these days also carry lots of drought-tolerant plants. Specialty succulent nurseries, especially those with lists of hardy plants, are also worth looking into. I like Mountain Crest Gardens. Their plants always arrive in great shape and perform beautifully. There are many more out there! Click on the links below for more drought tolerant plant resources.
Watering house plants…it sounds simple, doesn’t it? But, if it were simple, there would be fewer black thumbs out there. Proper watering is at the heart of good plant care, and if you don’t know how to water a plant, then its little green future may be in peril. It is surprisingly easy to drown a plant with aqueous attention.
There isn’t a one-fits-all watering method because the needs of plants vary so widely. Some specialty plants, like many orchids and African violets (click here to learn more about African violet care.), require special watering, but lots can be grouped into heavy, average, and light watering categories. These are the plants covered in this article. Many characteristics impact watering, including the plant type and size, the growing environment, and even the pot type.
Watering and Pots
Before considering how to water what, it is necessary to cover planting containers. Consider these three container characteristics before potting up a plant or determining a water regime.
1. Drainage – First, unless you are watering an aquatic plant, pots must have drainage holes at the bottom, which allow water to fully drain. Otherwise, water will pool at the bottom and stagnate because of a lack of air. This will result in root rot or no root growth the soppy bottom of the pot. So, not only do drainage holes allow roots to get fresh water from top to bottom at each watering, but they help give roots needed air.
2. Material – The pot’s material will also impact a plant’s access to water. Terracotta pots soak up and release water, which increases the need to water. So, refrain from planting water-needy plants in Terracotta. Ceramic, fiberglass, and plastic pots are more watertight.
3. Size – Consider pot-to-plant and root-to-soil ratios. Larger plants in smaller pots need more water, while smaller plants in larger pots need less water. Why? Because smaller root systems soak up less water, and if little plants are grown in larger pots, the soil will hold water for longer. The flip side is that when the roots of a large plant outgrow a pot and become intertwined, they no longer have room to take up water, so the need to water greatly increases, especially when conditions are hot, dry, and sunny. Plant roots need room for good water uptake.
Watering and Environment
Just use common sense when weighing environment and plant watering needs. When conditions are sunny, dry, hot and/or breezy, plants need more water. So, if you place them in a hot, sunny window, near a vent or radiator, or in a warm conservatory or sunroom, plan to water more. Likewise, in lower-lit rooms that are cooler or very humid, the need for water will be reduced.
The most basic watering method is simple; water the pot entirely until the bottom saucer is filled. Do this every time you water, and make sure there are no dry pockets in the potting mix down below (this can happen when soil becomes too dry between waterings). Consistent, thorough watering will also allow you to better calculate when to regularly water a plant.
When to rewater is the trickiest bit that gets new house-plant growers into trouble. How can you tell when you need to rewater? There are a few ways to determine this with average house plants. Most gardeners use the finger test. Stick your finger down into the soil. When it feels dry down to a couple of inches, then rewater. But, some gardeners want greater precision. Soil-moisture meters are accurate and popular with calculating gardeners. They indicate the level of moisture in the mix down to any given depth, allowing for more precise watering. Once you have a good watering rhythm, the need to test should be less frequent or even unnecessary.
Plants That Need Heavy Water
Think big. Large and thin-leaved tropicals, fast-growing plants, and those with big, fast-growing root systems require more water. They soak it up and spit it out quickly. (Some large-leaved plants with thick, tough, waxy leaves can be exceptions because some hold onto water quite well.) Elephant ears (Alocasia and Colocasia spp.), Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), and peace lilies (Spathiphyllum spp.) fall into the heavy-watering category as well as semi-aquatic plants, like papyrus (Cyperus papyrus). Depending on the growing environment, they may need to be watered daily or every few days.
Plants That Need Moderate Water
Moderately vigorous plants that are not succulent often require moderate water. These are your not too much, not too little, in the middle plants. Soil moisture meters are perfect for these. Begonias, spider plants, peperomia, pilea, palms, and philodendron all fall into this category. They may need to be watered once or twice a week under average indoor growing conditions.
Plants That Need Little Water
Cacti and succulents, such as agave, aloe, echeveria, and jade plants (click here to read more about growing jade plants), require the least amount of water. The main killer of these plants is heavy winter watering. In their natural habitats, most endure a dry winter period, so this is what they expect in homes as well. Root rot, stem rot, and plant death are the side effects of heavy watering, so it’s best to err on the side of safety and water little to none between late fall and spring–maybe once a month. If you bring them outdoors in hot summer weather, the need for water will increase to approximately three to four times a month.
When getting the hang of watering a new plant, make sure you fully understand its growing and moisture needs. Then refrain from the desire to water just a little bit more or a little bit less than it needs. Get basic watering right, and you will be on your way to having a true green thumb.
“I was wondering what’s a cheap and effective way for the home organic grower to remove chlorine and, more importantly, chloramine without using expensive reverse osmosis filters. Can you recommend a product that is inexpensive and effective at making water safe for all the organic goodies we work so hard to cultivate?” Question from Stephen of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Answer: There are several inexpensive solutions that can help you. Here are three of the best, easiest, and cheapest solutions for water dechlorination for organic growers like you.
Chlorine is a gas that evaporates from irrigation water over a short period of time. To encourage evaporation, irrigation water must be exposed to the air. The more open-air coverage, the faster the evaporation. Ultraviolet rays from sunlight and added aeration will help hasten the process. I recommend using a broad, open tub covering with a screen (to keep insects and animals out) that is kept in the open air and sun for irrigation water. A small pond aerator with also hasten the process. These water sources can also collect rainwater.
Chlorine evaporation time depends on the concentration. In general, it takes chlorine a few days for the standard concentration to evaporate from 10 gallons of standing water. I suggest investing in a small chlorine tester to ensure your water is chlorine-free before irrigating.
Carbon Filtration for Chloramine
Chloramine is a little tougher to remove from water. The easiest method is via carbon filtration. For small businesses, there are small, reasonably priced, carbon filtration systems that will remove sediment, chlorine, and chloramine from water. Here are some options.
“My cactus and succulents are indoors and under lights all year. Should I try to give them a dormancy period with less light and lower room temps in the winter?” Question from Kendra of Humboldt, Iowa
Answer: It looks like your succulents have plenty of light! They look great. Keep them under lights for winter, but feel free to turn them off at night. If you want to save money on lighting bills, consider bringing them outdoors in the summer months, after the threat of frost has passed. They will thrive in the natural sunlight. Just be sure to check them for insects before bringing them back indoors in fall; cleaning the plants with insecticidal soap is also a protective measure.
When it comes to winter growing temperatures, cacti and succulents do like it a little cooler. Maintaining a room temperature between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit would be ideal.
Water less, too. Indoor succulents tend to require little to no water during the winter months. This mimics the winter dry season that they experience in their natural habitats, so be sure to water them very sparingly during the cold season. It also pays to plant them in a premium, fast-draining mix, like Black Gold Cactus Mix.
“How much sun (if any) do indoor succulents need?” Question from Diane of Palmyra, New Jersey
Answer: Most popular indoor succulents originate from semi-desert to desert environments where they experience hot sun during the day and cool temperatures at night. That means they tend to grow best if provided bright sunlight. In some instances, certain succulents also grow well in partial sun or bright, filtered light. One of the best able to withstand lower light is Sanseveria (Click here to learn more about growing Sansevieria). Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata, photo above), giant gasteria (Gasteria acinacifolia), and torch aloe (Aloe aristata) are three more succulents that will grow well in lower light.
Indoor succulents also tend to require little to no water during the winter months. This mimics the winter dry season that they experience in their natural habitats, so be sure to water them very sparingly during the cold season. It also pays to plant them in a premium, fast-draining mix, like Black Gold Cactus Mix!
If you have any gorgeous, red amaryllis left over from the holidays, treat it well and it will reward you with blooms again next year. After the current flower fades, cut the stem off at the base but leave any newly forming leaves to remain. The foliage carries on photosynthesis to store energy in the bulb before it goes dormant.
Move the potted bulb to new sunny location and keep it adequately watered until the leaves die back naturally. Then remove the bulb from its pot, clip off all residual roots and leaves, then store it in your refrigerator. Replant in new pots next fall with Black Gold All Purpose Potting Soil.